Self employed subcontractor working

Self employed subcontractor – The Comprehensive Guide

In the dynamic business world, the role of a self-employed subcontractor has never been more pivotal. These independent professionals, operating at the intersection of entrepreneurship and specialised service provision, are reshaping the landscape of various industries, from construction to IT. But what does it mean to be a self-employed subcontractor, and how does it differ from traditional employment or contracting?

A self-employed subcontractor is a master of their destiny, running their own business and taking full responsibility for its triumphs and trials. They are not just workers but business entities in their own right, offering their expertise to contractors or organisations under a service contract. This autonomy brings with it many benefits, such as flexibility and the freedom to choose projects. However, it also comes with its own set of challenges, including managing taxes, insurance and navigating the complexities of contractual agreements.

This comprehensive guide will delve into the intricacies of being a self-employed subcontractor, shedding light on this unique employment status’s benefits, challenges, and responsibilities. Whether you’re considering stepping into the world of subcontracting or seeking to understand the role of subcontractors in your business, this guide will provide you with the insights you need.

From understanding the nuances of the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) to navigating the labyrinth of tax obligations and insurance requirements, we’ll equip you with the knowledge to navigate the subcontracting landscape confidently. So, let’s embark on this journey to unravel the world of self-employed subcontractors, which promises to be as enlightening as it is empowering.

Table of Contents

Understanding Self-Employment

Explanation of self-employment

Self-employment is a state of professional independence where an individual operates their own business rather than working as an employee for a company. This business could take various forms, from a sole trader or a partnership to a limited company.

The self-employed individual is responsible for all aspects of the business, including decision-making, financial management, and the risks associated with the business’s success or failure.

Being self-employed means having the freedom to choose the nature of your work, your clients, and your working hours. It also means being responsible for your own income tax and National Insurance contributions and potentially having to navigate complex issues such as VAT and business rates.

The pros and cons of being self-employed

Like any professional decision, self-employment comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.


  • Flexibility: As a self-employed individual, you can set your working hours and choose the projects you want to work on.
  • Control: You have complete control over your business decisions and can steer your business in the direction you want.
  • Potential for higher earnings: Depending on your industry and skillset, being self-employed could potentially lead to higher earnings than traditional employment.


  • Financial risk: Being self-employed means taking on the financial risk of your business. If your business doesn’t succeed, you could potentially lose money.
  • Inconsistent income: Your income may fluctuate monthly, making financial planning more challenging.
  • Lack of employment benefits: Self-employed individuals do not receive employment benefits such as sick pay, holiday pay, or employer pension contributions.

The difference between self-employment and traditional employment

While both self-employment and traditional employment involve performing work in exchange for payment, there are key differences between the two.


  • You’re your own boss.
  • You have control over your work, including what you do and how you do it.
  • You’re responsible for your own taxes and National Insurance contributions.
  • You don’t receive employment benefits such as sick pay or holiday pay.

Traditional Employment:

  • You work for a boss or a company.
  • Your employer controls your work, including what you do and how you do it.
  • Your employer deducts your taxes and National Insurance contributions from your salary.
  • You receive employment benefits such as sick pay, holiday pay, and potentially a pension scheme.

Understanding these differences is crucial for anyone considering a move into self-employment, as it can significantly impact your working life and financial situation.

The Role of a Subcontractor

A detailed explanation of what a subcontractor does

A subcontractor is a professional or a business entity that a primary contractor hires to perform specific tasks or services within a larger project. These tasks are often specialized, requiring a certain level of expertise or skill that the primary contractor may not possess.

For instance, in a construction project, a primary contractor might hire a subcontracting firm to handle the electrical work or plumbing.

Subcontractors are responsible for managing their portion of the project, ensuring it is completed on time, within budget, and to the required quality standards. They may hire their workers, purchase necessary materials, and even bring in their subcontractors if needed.

The relationship between subcontractor, contractor, and end customer

In the subcontracting model, the primary contractor is the party that has a direct contractual relationship with the end customer. Conversely, the subcontractor has a contract with the primary contractor, not the end customer.

The primary contractor is responsible for the project’s overall management, including coordinating all subcontractors’ work. The subcontractor reports to the primary contractor, who in turn is accountable to the end customer for the project’s successful completion.

The benefits of being a subcontractor

Being a subcontractor comes with several benefits:

  • Specialization: Subcontractors are often hired for their expertise in a specific field. This allows them to focus on what they do best and deliver high-quality work.
  • Flexibility: Subcontractors can choose which projects to work on and often set their schedules.
  • Business Opportunities: Working as a subcontractor can lead to networking opportunities and potential future business, as satisfied contractors may recommend them to other potential clients.

The challenges faced by subcontractors

Despite the benefits, subcontractors also face certain challenges:

  • Dependence on Contractors: Subcontractors rely on primary contractors for work, which can lead to periods of uncertainty if contracts are not regularly coming in.
  • Competition: There can be significant competition in certain fields, which may impact a subcontractor’s ability to secure contracts.
  • Financial Management: Subcontractors are responsible for their tax obligations and must manage their finances effectively to ensure profitability.
  • Limited Rights: As they are not employees, subcontractors do not have the same employment rights and benefits as traditional employees.

Understanding the role of a subcontractor, the benefits, and the challenges can help individuals make informed decisions about whether this path is right for them.

Navigating the Legal Landscape: Subcontractor Rights and Responsibilities

Understanding Subcontractor Rights

As self-employed individuals, subcontractors have different rights compared to traditional employees. They are not entitled to employment benefits such as sick pay, holiday pay, or employer pension contributions. However, they do have certain rights under UK law:

  • Right to a Safe Working Environment: All workers, including subcontractors, have the right to work in a safe and healthy environment. Contractors are responsible for ensuring the safety of all workers on their sites.
  • Protection Against Discrimination: Subcontractors are protected against discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Dispute Resolution: In case of a dispute with a contractor, subcontractors have the right to seek resolution through legal channels. It’s crucial to have a clear contract outlining the terms of the agreement to support this process.

Responsibilities of a Subcontractor

Subcontractors also have a set of responsibilities that they must adhere to:

  • Quality of Work: Subcontractors are expected to complete their work to the standards outlined in their contract. Failure to do so could result in penalties or termination of the contract.
  • Tax Obligations: As self-employed individuals, subcontractors are responsible for managing their own taxes. This includes paying Income Tax, National Insurance contributions, and potentially VAT if their turnover exceeds the VAT threshold.
  • Insurance: Subcontractors should have appropriate insurance coverage to protect against potential liabilities. This may include public liability insurance, professional indemnity insurance, and employer’s liability insurance if they employ others.
  • Health and Safety: Subcontractors must comply with health and safety regulations, ensuring their work does not endanger themselves or others on site.

Navigating the legal landscape as a subcontractor can be complex, but understanding your rights and responsibilities is crucial for maintaining a successful and compliant business.

Tax Considerations for Self-Employed Subcontractors

Understanding Tax Obligations

As a self-employed subcontractor, managing your tax obligations is crucial to your business. Unlike employees, whose employer deducts their taxes at source, self-employed individuals are responsible for calculating and paying their own taxes. This includes:

  • Income Tax: This is a tax on the profits of your business. The amount you pay depends on your business’s profit, with different tax rates for different income bands.
  • National Insurance: Self-employed individuals pay Class 2 and Class 4 National Insurance contributions, depending on their profits.
  • VAT: If your business turnover exceeds the VAT threshold, you must also register for VAT and submit regular VAT returns.

The VAT threshold in the UK for 2023 is £85,000. This means that businesses with a taxable turnover of less than £85,000 are not required to register for VAT. However, they can choose to register if they wish.

The VAT threshold is calculated on a rolling 12-month basis. This means that your taxable turnover is calculated over the last 12 months, and if it exceeds £85,000 at any point during that time, you will need to register for VAT.

There are a few exceptions to the VAT threshold. For example, businesses that sell only services are not required to register for VAT until their taxable turnover reaches £150,000.

If you are unsure whether you need to register for VAT, you can contact HMRC for advice. Here are some of the things to consider when determining whether you need to register for VAT:

  • Your taxable turnover
  • The type of goods and services you sell
  • Whether you sell to businesses or consumers
  • Whether you are registered for other taxes

The Construction Industry Scheme (CIS)

The Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) is particularly relevant for subcontractors working in the construction industry. Under CIS, contractors deduct money from a subcontractor’s payments and pass it to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). These deductions are advance payments towards the subcontractor’s tax and National Insurance.

It’s important to note that being registered as a CIS subcontractor doesn’t automatically make you self-employed for all construction work. Each contract must be assessed individually, as a worker may be considered self-employed in one contract and employed in another.

Seeking Professional Advice

Given the complexity of tax obligations for self-employed subcontractors, it may be beneficial to seek professional advice. Accountants or tax advisors can help ensure you meet your tax obligations, claim any allowable expenses, and avoid potential penalties from HMRC.

Understanding your tax obligations as a self-employed subcontractor is crucial for maintaining a compliant and profitable business. It’s advisable to keep accurate and up-to-date records of all your business income and expenses to make this process easier.

Insurance and Licenses for Self-Employed Subcontractors

Importance of Insurance Coverage

As a self-employed subcontractor, having the right insurance coverage is essential. It protects you and your business from potential liabilities and gives your clients confidence in your professionalism. Here are some types of insurance you might consider:

  • Public Liability Insurance: This covers you if a third party (like a client or member of the public) suffers injury or property damage because of your business activities.
  • Professional Indemnity Insurance: This covers you if a client suffers financial loss due to a mistake or negligence in the work you’ve done for them.
  • Employer’s Liability Insurance: If you employ others, even casually, you must legally have this insurance. It covers you if an employee gets injured or ill due to working for you.

Verifying Relevant Certifications and Licenses

Depending on the nature of your work, you may need certain certifications or licenses. For example, electricians must be certified to carry out certain types of work. It’s important to keep these certifications current and provide proof of them to clients if asked.

Liability Insurance and Contractual Agreements

Having a clear contractual agreement with your clients is also crucial. This should outline the scope of the work, payment terms, and what happens if things go wrong. Getting legal advice when drafting contracts is a good idea to ensure they’re legally sound and protect your interests.

Insurance and licenses are not just bureaucratic hurdles for self-employed subcontractors. They’re crucial for protecting your business, your clients, and yourself. By ensuring you have the right coverage and credentials, you can focus on delivering high-quality work with peace of mind.

Making the Choice: Self-Employed Subcontractor vs. Traditional Employment

Weighing the Pros and Cons

Choosing between self-employment and traditional employment is a significant decision that can impact your career, lifestyle, and financial stability. Both paths have their advantages and drawbacks, and the best choice depends on your circumstances, career goals, and risk tolerance.

Self-Employment Advantages:

  • Control: You have full control over your business as a self-employed subcontractor. You can choose which projects to take on, set your rates, and decide your working hours.
  • Variety: You can work on various projects and for different clients, which can make your work more interesting and help you build a diverse portfolio.
  • Potential for Higher Earnings: Depending on your industry and expertise, you may have the potential to earn more as a self-employed subcontractor than as an employee.

Self-Employment Disadvantages:

  • Uncertainty: Your income may fluctuate from month to month, depending on the amount of work you have. This can make budgeting and financial planning more challenging.
  • No Employment Benefits: You won’t receive benefits like sick pay, holiday pay, or a pension contribution from your clients.
  • Administrative Burden: You’ll manage your taxes, insurance, and other administrative tasks.

Comparing to Traditional Employment

Traditional employment offers a different set of benefits and challenges. Employees typically have more job security, a steady income, and employment benefits. However, they also have less control over their work and fewer opportunities for entrepreneurship.

Making an Informed Decision

The choice between self-employment and traditional employment is a personal one. It’s important to consider all aspects, including your financial situation, personal preferences, and long-term career goals. Consulting with a career advisor or a financial planner can also be beneficial in making this decision.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. What works best for one person might not work for another. The key is to make an informed decision that aligns with your individual circumstances and aspirations.

The Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) and Its Implications for Subcontractors

Understanding the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS)

The Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) is a tax deduction scheme in the UK construction industry. Under CIS, contractors deduct money from a subcontractor’s payments and pass it to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). These deductions are advance payments towards the subcontractor’s tax and National Insurance.

Implications for Subcontractors

Being a part of the CIS has several implications for subcontractors:

  • Tax Deductions: Contractors deduct 20% from the subcontractor’s tax and National Insurance payments if the subcontractor is registered under CIS. If the subcontractor is not registered, the contractor will deduct 30%.
  • Verification Process: Contractors must verify subcontractors with HMRC to determine the correct deduction rate.
  • Monthly Returns: Contractors must file monthly returns to HMRC, reporting all payments made to subcontractors and deductions taken.

Registering for CIS

Subcontractors can register for CIS if they work in the construction industry and meet certain criteria. Registering for CIS can reduce the amount of tax deducted from payments and make it easier to manage tax obligations.

CIS and Self-Employment Status

It’s important to note that being registered as a CIS subcontractor doesn’t automatically make you self-employed for all construction work. Each contract must be assessed individually, as a worker may be considered self-employed in one contract and employed in another.

The Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) is a key part of working as a subcontractor in the construction industry. Understanding how it works and its implications can help you manage your tax obligations and maintain a compliant business.

Rights and Protections for Self-Employed Subcontractors

Understanding Employment Status

In the UK, there are three main types of employment status: employee, worker, and self-employed. Each status comes with different rights and protections. As a self-employed subcontractor, you have fewer rights than employees or workers. However, you still have some basic rights and protections under UK law.

Basic Rights for Subcontractors

As a self-employed subcontractor, you have the right to:

  • Safe Working Conditions: You have the right to work in a safe and healthy environment. This includes the right to proper training and equipment to carry out your work safely.
  • Non-Discrimination: You are protected from discrimination based on age, sex, race, religion, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, or sexual orientation.
  • Data Protection: You have rights regarding how your personal data is used by the people or companies you work for.

Limited Employment Rights

Unlike employees, self-employed subcontractors do not have rights to:

  • Minimum Wage: As self-employed, you negotiate your own pay with your clients.
  • Paid Leave: You are not entitled to paid leave, including holiday, sick leave, or parental leave.
  • Protection Against Unfair Dismissal: As a subcontractor, your client can end your contract at any time, as long as it’s in line with the terms of your contract.

Importance of Clear Contracts

Having a clear contract with your clients can help protect your rights as a subcontractor. The contract should outline the scope of work, payment terms, and what happens if the contract is ended early. It’s a good idea to get legal advice when drafting contracts to ensure they’re legally sound and protect your interests.

While self-employed subcontractors have fewer employment rights than employees, it’s important to understand your basic rights and protections. This can help you ensure you’re treated fairly and can work in a safe and respectful environment.

Wrapping Up: Self-Employed Subcontracting

In conclusion, being a self-employed subcontractor can be a rewarding and flexible career choice, offering the freedom to manage your own business and choose the projects you undertake. However, it’s not without its challenges. From understanding the nuances of the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) to navigating the complex world of insurance and tax obligations, it requires a level of business acumen and self-discipline that goes beyond the mastery of a specific trade or skill.

Remember, as a self-employed subcontractor, you’re not just a tradesperson, you’re a business owner. This means you need to think about your work in a broader context, considering not just the task at hand, but how it fits into your overall business strategy. It’s about building relationships with clients, managing your finances, and ensuring you’re compliant with all relevant regulations and laws.

While the path of a self-employed subcontractor may seem daunting, remember that there are resources available to help you navigate this journey. From professional advisors who can help with tax and legal issues to industry bodies offering support and guidance, you’re not alone in this journey.

In the end, the key to success as a self-employed subcontractor lies in understanding your rights and responsibilities, staying informed about industry changes, and being proactive in managing your business. It’s about taking control of your career and shaping it in a way that works for you.

So, whether you’re considering becoming a self-employed subcontractor or you’re already on this path, we hope this guide has provided you with valuable insights and practical advice to help you navigate the world of self-employed subcontracting. Remember, every journey starts with a single step. Take that step today and start shaping your future in the world of subcontracting.